Rock Solid Commands

This weekend I discovered something wonderful.  It was something that Dog and I have been working up to for a while now, without me really realising it.  The first clue to this magical wondrous thing was in our obedience class.  The trainer was having everyone take turns getting their dog to sit from a distance, then with their backs turned, and then while standing out of sight in another room.  She got us to do the same thing with the down command as well. 

Dog gives me this look, sometimes.  The look says, “Why are we doing this very stupid thing?” and seems to include an eye-roll worthy of snarky teenagers worldwide – and I ought to know, seeing as how I was one.  It also precedes a sometimes very long pause before he does the thing I’ve asked him to do.  He is clearly telling me that he knows what I’m asking him to do, but that he hasn’t decided yet if he wants to “acquiesce to my request”, and that if he does, it isn’t necessarily anything to do with me. 

“Maybe I just felt like sitting, shortly after you asked me to do so,” he says, smug superiority in every line of his oh-so-casual movement into a sit. 

Suffice to say, when our trainer explained the game-plan for the class, I was fairly sure I’d be that person whose dog would barely listen, would have to be told the command many many times before Dog would deign to do as he was told.  Especially in a room full of his peers, all distracting him by their very existence in the same acre of land as him.

On that note, I trudged up to the gaol, handed Dog off to the trainer, and retreated to half-way across the gym – about a quarter of the basketball court away from Dog.  The game would go, in my opinion, like this:

Me- “Dog, Sit”

Dog – glances at the trainer, glances at the other dogs, wags his tail and smiles.  He is doing his best to project ‘neener neener neeeeener’ at me.

Me – “Dog … (the pause is so that he clearly hears his name and the command as separate.  I’ll be staring intently across the room at him, trying to make him sit with the power of my mind.) SIT.”

Dog – eye-roll and attempt to walk towards the Vizsla he’s been flirting with all class.  “Hey babe, check out that useless twit, trying to make me do something I don’t want to do.  But I’m a leader, not a follower – I do things on my own terms.”

Vizsla – “Oooh, a ‘bad boy’, that is so attractive to me.  Keep ignoring your human, and I will continue being interested in you.”

Me – “Dog… SIT” (including the arm movement of drawing my hand, palm up, upwards.  So, now I’m standing alone in the middle of the gym, arm raised like I’m the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, trying to do something silly involving mops rising up to the ceiling)

Dog – eye-roll… start to lower his bum, changes his mind, and resumes standing.  Yawns, mockingly.

Trainer – okay, we’ll try this a bit closer

Repeat steps until I’m just about standing on top of him, he finally yawns and drops into… a down.  Because he’s tired of standing here waiting for me to get it right.

How it actually went left me nearly stunned.  It left me with that big goofy grin on my face that a person gets when they’ve finally gotten something difficult to work out.  Or when they’ve just unwrapped the most amazing present ever.  The series of events that actually happened was this:

Me – Dog, Sit.

Dog – sits

The mind boggles.  And continued to boggle as Dog listened to me for each of the next poses – back turned, out the door and around the corner… and repeat, for down. 

Clearly, Dog is a genius.  And I am the new Dr. Doolittle, Dog Trainer Extraordinaire.  He’s realised how amazing my skills are, which is why he’s stopped with the eye-rolling and surly indifference to my commands, and started listening promptly.  I was so impressed with us, you have no idea.

However, the relatively isolated gymnasium with dogs he’s met before kept apart from him by leashes, on a leash held by the obedience trainer does not really prove much in the real world.  Because the real world has squirrels, strange dogs, mysterious piles of snow, mysterious piles of mud (yes, we’re going with the theory that it is just mud), Timmy’s cups, banana peels, birds, cars, strange noises, and so many intriguing scents all around, that mastering the SIT command in a gym is really not that impressive. 

So, on our walk this weekend, once he was off-leash and we were walking up the creek valley, it occurred to me that I ought to test his ‘Sit’.  And yet again found my mind boggled as, mid-sniff-at-shrubbery, he sat.  And then again, he sat, even though he’d been trotting towards a strange dog.  He came to a stop and sat when he’d been running towards me, and when he was running away from me.  He sat in amongst the trees and he sat on the path.  He still messed up a few times, but, all things considered, he was pretty darned good!  More importantly than just sitting, he sat and he waited in that position until I gave him the release word.  My mind = completely boggled. 

I am getting to the point of this, the part that another new dog owner might actually find useful, that gets past the bragging about how awesome my dog is doing at the Sit command. 

What this exercise proves is that Dog knows this command.  He knows it so well that it doesn’t matter that I’ve hardly practiced it from a distance, and not at all from a different room than him.  And it is a really important command to get your dog to know really well.

Sit from a distance might seem like a neat-but-not-necessary thing to be able to get, but, if your dog gets loose and runs across the street, the last thing you want to do is tell him to Come.  Assuming you’ve got that command down pat, he will have to run across the street again to get to you, and this time, he might not be so lucky.  If your dog will sit wherever he is when you say the command, you have the time and opportunity to cross the street safely and reclaim him.

There doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get everything done that needs doing, let alone ensure that your dog gets plenty of practice doing obedience tricks he already knows how to do, for the most part.  The way I’ve been slipping in practice of sit is on walks, and before he eats. 

I give Dog the sit command every time we reach a street intersection.  Initially, we would stand at the intersection for a while, him rolling his eyes and looking for the invisible car I was making him stop for, me rolling my eyes and wishing he’d just sit so we could keep moving and warm up again.  He’d eventually give in, and I’d praise him like he’d actually done what I wanted when I initially told him to.  And then I take a few steps, before giving the release command (I use Break as my command, but it can be anything… it is a word that represents ‘you don’t have to do what I told you to do anymore’.  Though I do recommend not choosing ‘ok’, because that word comes out far too easily in day to day speaking.), and we’d continue along to the next block.  He still dawdles on occasion, but, for the most part, he’s figured out that the fastest way to get over to that exciting other side of the street, and keep walking, is to sit.  In the past month or so, I’ve started mixing it up, as well – it doesn’t always have to be Sit, now.  Sometimes it is Sit, then Shake a Paw, sometimes it is Sit, then Wave.  And, I’ve begun integrating Down into this routine as well.  It takes longer, and he often gives me the accusatory “why are you making me lie down on the cold ground?” look, but my hope is that it will bring that command to the semi-instinctual place that Sit has also gotten to.  He gets treats sometimes.  Some walks go the entire time without anything more than affection as my praise for him doing the command at the corner, while others, I alternate between affection and treats. 

He also has to Sit-Stay or Down-Stay before he gets his food, something that practices the commands with a very interesting distraction, as well as helping to make sure your dog doesn’t get territorial over his food.  The bowl or kong might be on the ground, and he might be closer to it than I am, but he knows I’m in control of it, and that I haven’t given him permission to get it yet.  This practice even has its own reward built in – in the end, he gets the food, and I get to slip in a bit more training.

Now that I’ve clued in to just how well this method works, my next goal is to figure out how to make his ‘Come’ as automatic as his Sit, regardless of distractions.  If you’ve got suggestions on that, let me know.  He’s at the point that if he doesn’t want to do it, he’ll choose to ignore the call – or run past me when he spots a new distraction on his way to being obedient.

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